Consumption

It was once remarked (by Guy Debord) that a society whose members are fully born within the spectacle will not have any other reference point than the spectacle itself making the prospects of a revolution unlikely. We would like to say that no society is without cracks, but we also need the consciousness that will make the cracks the opening for a new society to come. At least some of us are around that may have not succumbed fully to the spectacle. It is up to us to point to and use the cracks.

Within the ongoing crisis of the past four years, the remedies and actions proposed have been circumscribed by the acrimonies between conservatives (reduce incentives, reduce deficits, impose austerity measures) and liberal/progressives (increase incentives, deficits are not the defining issue, increase investments and maintain or expand the role of the state). This situation has polluted every western country, including those of Southern Europe, as defining the means to overcome the crisis. It should be noted that the use of the term “crisis” in the current context obscures a number of issues: that the irrationalities of contemporary capitalism make crises an integral part of the society/economy itself; that the “solutions” that capitalists, managers, governments and union bureaucrats implement in a permanent state of shifting frictions and alliances lead to increasing situations that none are able to fully control or even anticipate; and in this process new actors emerge within this four cornered pattern. One such actor has been the finance/speculative capital

The intensification and expansion in recent years of the rising poverty and unemployment in the West and the preoccupation with proposing solutions that seem “realistic” and will produce immediate relief obscures the fact that there is a long history of actions, discussions and ideas about creating (and desiring to create) another kind of society (we have another world in our hearts as some anarchists used to say) because the society we live in is unjust, destructive and exploitative. Even when it has been able to deliver the goods so called (recall Shumpeter? – it is cruel, but it can deliver the goods, damnit!), peoples’ mental states are falling apart. Currently, the USA has one of largest per capita consumption of anti-depressants and anxiety medications. And I am sure Europe is not that far behind. And this is not just during the present situation. But we don’t want another society just because many of us live in economic misery. We want another society because even when it “functions”, it does so in a way that defines our desires in ways that we abhor, and because it bores us, and because we want to be creative and so on. We want another society because among many things we hate being reduced to private consumers.

For conservatives and liberals/socialists the common reference point, tacitly accepted, by conservatives as the prize for those who will work hard to gain it, and progressives, liberals, social democrats and other assorted leftists as the way out of the crisis, is the primacy and the positive value of buying/consuming.  It is as though consuming has become the defining characteristic of the modern human: homo consumers or homobuyers. Both our supply-siders and Keynesians are united here, whether left or right, consuming and buying is what counts.

Post second-world war capitalism was based on consumption as its propelling force: rising standards of living, rising wages, the class struggle as expressing itself in wage demands, a capitalism which transformed from pre-twentieth century entrepreneurship to transnational corporations and the increasing use of consumer credit to drive demand (and consumption). This may have contributed to the rise of finance capital, but since the nineties we see finance capital as attempting to dominate the capitalist landscape, both as activity (e.g. it has been argued recently that financing as a way of profit making accounts for the profitability of particularly non-finance corporations such as General Electric) and as a capitalist force/actor: the so-called speculative capitalism. What we may be seeing here is that the dominant strata of our society, in conjunction with new ascending strata (finance capital), are limiting if not abandoning the model of consumption as the driving model for capitalism as consumption was in large part forced as a solution on capitalists by the emergent powerful working class movements of the 19th and early 20th century. With the decline of these movements, with the push of production for the most part to former third world countries, the political landscape of the class struggle has changed. (It should also be kept in mind that Western based corporations and Western States are now competing with emerging or emergent powerful economic forces in other continents).

There are a number of disturbing concurrences:

  • The expansion and normalization of surveillance in the details of everyday life: cameras on streets, finger/hand signatures for time clocks
  • The introduction and research into military robotics (e.g. drones)
  • The cynicism towards democracy: understood here as parliamentary democracy, but since the vast majority of the population have not studied Rousseau or ancient Athens or the anarchists, this cynicism becomes an attack against the idea of the public, public engagement and egalitarian forms of decision making (except at times at the small scale level, or at the private level, where concepts of Rights are mostly applied to, the right to my body, the right to my sexual orientation etc, seen as primarily rights of expression of one’s self’s private dispositions). It is not surprising that when you talk with younger people you encounter ideas such as the benevolent dictator.
  • The dangers of not consuming: for the first time it emerged in the general consciousness of Western Society and especially in the USA in the aftermath of September 11 when Bush came out to ask people to consume as their patriotic duty. If it is correct to say that capitalism is retrenching into a post-consumer society, we might argue that, the urge for consumption is part of a competing (and prior) discourse, which at this point may still have a place. It is not clear as of yet how things will play themselves out, but clearly a tendency is emerging that is looking at other factors to drive capitalism forward.  A massive or very large level of private wealth is perhaps remerging as a defining characteristic of society.

Thus two scenarios are emerging: one, an attempt to save the system (particularly Western capitalism) by mass consuming ones way of the crisis, which maintains the state in a stronger economic role; and another, more consistent with the current emergence of financial capital and more generally capitalist/managerial power play with a decline in the standard of living of increasing numbers of people, and consumption reserved for the higher strata. All this may take time to be played out. It should not be forgotten that there has been a sizeable resistance against this crisis and those seen responsible or colluding against the population. And it should be noted that the politics of the squares and the Occupy Movement for the first time since the 60’s and especially May 68 brought out into the public domain the politics of participatory or direct democracy, regardless of the limits due to inexperience or manipulations. The latter is not surprising. What is important is maturation.  In Greece, Spain , for example, new forms of economics and political decision making are being put into place by small dedicated groups of individuals.

For us, who see the hope of this world in the politics of libertarian/anarchist revolution proposals that are to “save” the system are unacceptable. It is not so much that this means that one must be against reform if by reform is meant attempting to survive in a hostile environment and learning from the impasses. And many things are known now. The experience of 200 years and more of struggles and especially of the past fifty years have shown us many things: what happens when we trust leaders whether of government, unions or businesses, what happens when we rely on the state for solutions, when we consume incessantly and when we substitute consumption for living.

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